By Dave Taylor
The COVID-19 pandemic might have hurt small businesses, but the groundswell of support for a local movie theater has lifted the spirits of its owners, and the public will reap the benefits with a month of free movie showings.
Cinema 66 in Tell City, Ind. has been forced to close for months due to the virus, but after owners Teri and Shane Richards, of Hawesville, posted online that they were struggling, the community rallied around them and began sharing ideas and even donating funds to the only movie theater that serves Hancock, Breckinridge and Perry counties.
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb required theaters to close on March 20 amid coronavirus worries, but the restrictions that had already been placed on businesses had shuttered the cinema two days before that.
“We had already closed just because of the lack of business and the restrictions that there already were,” said Teri Richards. “We could only allow 10 people in each theater and we were maybe having four.”
The couple expected it to be a short-term closure.
“At that time all of the film companies still had all of their summer blockbusters on the schedule,” she said. “And then probably I would say the end of April is when the film companies started pulling movies.”
As the closure extended into May, the cinema began selling to-go popcorn and drinks to stay afloat.
“It’s been paying the electric bill, it’s been paying our rent and keeping us going,” she said.
Some hope arrived in May when they were scheduled to be allowed to reopen with restrictions, but then the governor pushed that date into mid-June, when the cinema played cult classics, since there were no new movies being released.
From June 19 to June 25 they had half-price tickets to movies like Back to the Future and 16 Candles, but imposed restrictions and widespread fears kept people home and they had to close again.
“We had probably 40 people through the week. Like, the week combined,” she said. “So with payroll and just the cost of running the place… it just didn’t pay for itself.”
In a June 30 post on the cinema’s Facebook page the couple asked for ideas from the community to be able to stay open.
“Well, it’s time to get brutally honest. Having to close again has really hit us hard,” the post said. “We are open to ideas and suggestions on things we can do to make a little money to cover our bills… We are really calling in the troops because it’s not looking good.”
“I don’t want to say that we thought that we might have to close forever,” Teri Richards said about the post, “but I mean over the past three years, Shane and I have put a lot of our personal funds into the theater. A lot. I mean a lot a lot.”
In order to take advantage of the closure the couple renovated the theater inside, painting and replacing flooring, to be ready for the summer season.
The couple sold their house in order to eventually build a new one, but that money has been diverted to the theater.
“We sold the house and used the funds to put into the theater. That’s just the honest truth,” she said. “So at this point we won’t have to close forever, but it’s not that far away. A person only has so much money and then it goes away.”
In response to the cinema’s post asking the public to continue to buy the popcorn that was maintaining them, the community began to rally support and even called for donations.
“If you can’t make it for popcorn, I know a donation of any amount would be appreciated!” posted Becky Reska. “The owners will never ask for help. We need to step up and help our locals.”
Teri Richards’ sister-in-law posted her PayPal address where donations could be sent, and others gave ideas for ways to make money and called for others to support the theater.
“Each school corporation in the county could sponsor a few nights for their kids. The community supports us and we should support you,” one woman posted.
“Literally, somebody from California sent us money,” Richards said. “She grew up in Tell City and she said I have fond memories of that theater and I do not want to see it close.”
“These communities, between Breckinridge, Hancock and Perry County, these communities are the most supportive people I’ve ever met and seen in my life, especially of local businesses,” she said.
Some offered to sponsor the fees for movies in order to allow the theater to show them, where the public would buy concessions and provide a financial boost.
Indiana has given approval for theaters to reopen at 50 percent capacity, so Cinema 66 is going to show six movies in July with free admission to the public, thanks to the sponsorships of Gibson & Son Funeral Home, B.J. and Lachelle Early, and Complete Wellness, which each sponsored one, and Tell City Regional Arts Association, which sponsored three.
“So they’re paying the film rent, and then I’m going to let the community in for free and they’ll just buy concessions while they’re there if they want,” she said.
The movies start on Friday, July 10 with The Empire Strikes Back at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. It will play again at the same times on July 14. On July 11 and 16, Inside Out will play.
The rest of the month Goonies, Lego Batman, Jurassic Park and Secret Life of Pets 2 will follow the same Friday/Tuesday, Saturday/Thursday schedule.
Plenty of precautions are being taken and Richards said the theater is prepared to keep everyone safe, with all employees wearing masks and gloves, and the theaters sanitized between showings. Those theaters will also be sparsely populated, with every other row blocked off and in the event that there are too many people to distance in the theater, the cinema will open another one to the overflow.
“Let’s just say 25-30 people get in the first theater, then I’m going to close the doors and I’m going to open the second theater,” she said. “So I can play the same movie in all four of my theaters. I’m comfortable with holding 125 people, and that would give them plenty of breathing room in each theater.”
New releases are currently scheduled to return in August, which Richards said is very tentative, and that it will depend on when larger cities reopen.
“My film booker talked to me about that the other day and she said that the film companies will start to release these more permanent dates when New York and LA are the ones that are open, because that’s their big money maker cities,” she said.
If the new releases get pushed back into fall?
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “Keep selling popcorn.”